ALBANIA: ‘We are now a producer, not consumer, of regional stability’
An interview with Ambassador Aleksander Sallabanda is a refreshing reminder of US policies gone right in recent years.
Little attention is now focused on the former Yugoslavia and its restless constituent parts, which have almost all established themselves as separate states by this time. The only remaining national issue is that of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, which is expected to be realized through a unilateral declaration of independence shortly.
Albania was an independent country almost surrounded by Yugoslavia, but largely isolated from it by high mountains and the isolationist policies of its post-WWII Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha.
However, because of the large majority of Albanians in Kosovo, and the large Albanian community in Macedonia, Albania was for some years in the 1990s at the center of regional adjustments to a new post-Yugoslav order. Civil wars in Kosovo and Macedonia that pitted ethnic Albanians against rival population groups were short-lived but threatened to grow into wider conflicts. Albania’s moderating influence over Albanian communities in neighboring countries contributed to limiting the spread of those conflicts.
Ambassador Sallabanda now describes his country as a producer of stability, rather than a consumer of it, in the region. “We are no longer consumers of stability, we are producers,” he told DiplomaticTraffic.com in a recent interview. The core contribution of Albania has been to avoid irredentist temptations and its encouragement of Albanian communities in neighboring countries to make peace with other ethnic groups for the sake of their nations.
“We look at Kosovo not as a second Albania, but as a country looking to Brussels for its future,” the ambassador said.
He speaks with fervor and conviction about Albania’s climb out of abject poverty under Hoxha, one of Communism’s worst dictators, who ruled Albania with an iron hand for 40 years until his death in 1985. Hoxha admired and emulated Stalin, and when the Soviet Union and later China broke with the extremes of Marxism-Leninism, in the Stalinist and Maoist molds respectively, Hoxha cut relations with those countries, plunging his tiny state of three million into almost total isolation.
Today, Albania is firmly oriented towards becoming a member of the Euro-Atlantic community. This means it is oriented towards developing its democratic institutions and its free market economy and to entering the two most important international organizations in its space: NATO and the European Union.
If all goes according to plan, Albania will officially be invited to join NATO next year, along with Croatia and Macedonia, and it hopes to enter the EU after several years of economic development and adjustment, the ambassador said.
“We have received confirmation that we are in the last mile of joining NATO,” he said.
These alignments are fully consistent with the trends in the Balkans, where all the countries in the region are either members of NATO and the EU or on the way to joining.
Ambassador Sallabanda noted the importance of building regional stability and peace on the foundations of democratic evolution within the countries of the area.
“Stability in the region is closely related to the stability within the country, which is achieved through developing democracy,” he said.
And the government of Prime Minister Sali Berisha is aggressively moving to achieve just such democratic progress.
The ambassador noted that there are three immediate targets for the zero tolerance policy of the Berisha government: corruption, human trafficking and drugs. All these, and the other crimes related to them, have been major problems facing newly independent Albania, because the collapse of the Communist regime saw the creation of a state of chaos with limited government controls.
The ambassador said that his country is becoming a regional leader in the fight against crime: “Albania is really producing security, especially in the fight against crime and corruption.”
Part of Albania’s success is related to its economic resurgence. Over the last two years Albania has produced annual GDP growth of 6 percent, the best in the region. GDP per capita is currently close to $7,000, a respectable figure, and a vast improvement over levels in the 90s.
A visit by President George Bush in the summer of 2007 served to underscore just how far Albania has come. Washington and Tirana are now close friends and allies, and Bush was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds. The ambassador described the visit as “historic.”
He noted that Albanians have long looked up to America, and respect it for three important occasions in their modern history when Washington actively worked to support their national aspirations.
The first time was after WWI when President Woodrow Wilson actively supported Albania’s independence.
The second time was at the end of World War II, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked (albeit unsuccessfully) to save Albania from Communism and help it from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence.
And, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its European communist satellites, Washington once more was ready to support the newly independent Albania. “In 1991, President George H.W. Bush opened the gates to freedom and democracy,” the ambassador said.
“We are absolutely grateful for this support. This is our pro-Americanism,” he added. “The American Constitution is like a holy book for the whole world.”
He noted that “there is no freedom without responsibility.” And: “Those who suffered under dictatorship understand this very well, thanks to God and the United States…. We would not have freedom without America.”
Ambassador Sallabanda is quick to recognize the importance of European support for Albania as well, but he says in the eyes of most Albanians it is America’s active friendship that has been the key to Albania’s freedom and development. “No neighboring country did as much for Albania as America did,” he said.
The ambassador did not want to talk much about his own bitter experiences with Albania’s Communist regime, but he did mention that he and his wife were both sent into internal exile for 11 years, and lost a child, during the Hoxha years.
And while some developed countries might find it almost embarrassing to talk about the value of freedom and the value of America’s commitment to its global spread, Ambassador Sallabanda is an enthusiastic and effective advocate for what he sees the American focus on freedom has done for his country and the Balkan region.
Albania would like to see more US investment, although the scope for this is limited, given the small market. However, in areas such as hydro energy generation and an oil pipeline from Burgas (in Bulgaria) to Albania’s Adriatic coast there is room for American investment. Other areas are tourism and the exploitation of mineral and petroleum resources.
There are some 800,000 Albanians in the United States. They have played an important role in supporting Albanian freedom, and now they are helping resurrect the economy, although typically through small and medium-sized investments.
Clearly Albania has left behind the uncertainty and missteps of the first post-communist years, when it staggered along a zig-zag path as it tried to find its capitalist feet. In the early 90s, the country was a shambles. The command economy set up by Hoxha had never produced good results, and its collapse left little more than a pile of economic rubble, making it necessary for the people and their new governments to start from scratch.
“Albania was a very closed country; now it is a very open country,” the ambassador said, summing up the transformation.